Charles Whitman: Forgotten Rampage

A 50-Year-Old Columbine
(Tower, directed by Keith Maitland)

Just for this week, I’d like to take a detour from Forensic Files to talk about a new documentary that’s now available on Netflix: Tower.

The movie re-creates a 1966 University of Texas mass murder that somehow — sandwiched between the more-lurid horrors of Richard Speck and the Manson family — got lost in America’s collective memory bank.

Charles Whitman in a widely circulated yearbook photo
Charles Whitman in a widely circulated yearbook photo

On August 1 of that year, a former Marine named Charles Whitman packed up his own personal arsenal, rode the elevator to the 27th floor of the school’s centrally located clock tower, and began shooting at people on the campus below.

Situated within the structure’s walled wraparound observatory deck, the 6-foot-tall blond sniper seemed to have found an invulnerable spot from which to execute strangers in a rain of bullets for an hour and a half.

He hit 46 men and women and at least one child. Sixteen died.

At the time, of course, the massacre made headlines around the world and terrified Americans. (And elicited a prescient opinion piece from Walter Cronkite, which the film shows.) But the horrific saga was referenced only lightly in popular culture over the subsequent years.

A brief mention of the Texas tragedy in a 2012 Mad Men episode, “Signal 30,” is the only one I can recall seeing on TV.

Perhaps the public forgot about the nightmare-by-daylight because Whitman died at the scene on the afternoon of his crime, eliminating the need for any courtroom drama.

Cathy Leissner, seen here as a bride, was murdered by husband Charles Whitman
Kathy Leissner, seen here as a bride, was murdered by husband Charles Whitman

And because the engineering student had murdered his mother and his wife the previous day, there were no prominent female relatives to publicly agonize over how their devoted blue-eyed young man had turned into a deranged executioner.

Tower spends very little time giving background information about Whitman and instead tells the story of the victims and rescuers — via an unorthodox method.

The filmmakers re-created them with an animation technique called rotoscoping and had actors provide their voices. At first, I had trouble getting used to this unusual storytelling element (especially because one of the rotoscoped police officers looked and sounded a little too much like Matthew McConaughey), but after about 15 minutes, I was fully invested.

The ordeal of a pregnant student named Claire Wilson James, who was shot and immobilized during the attack, is the emotional centerpiece of the drama.

But I don’t want to spoil any more of the movie’s revelations for those who will get a chance to see it.

Whitman said he killed his mother, Cynthia, to spare her from the pain o fher life
Whitman said he killed his mother, Margaret, to end her pain

One thing not included in the film is the fact that the 25-year-old Whitman sensed he was coming unhinged a few months before the tragedy.

“Whitman was intelligent enough to realize he had problems, so he went to a psychiatrist,” author Jay Robert Nash wrote in his true-crime encyclopedia Bloodletters & Badmen (M. Evans and Company, 1973).

Dr. Maurice Heatly later said that Whitman suffered from rage related to his parents’ breakup; his father had badly abused his mother during the marriage. Whitman also revealed to the doctor that he had thoughts of shooting people with a deer rifle from the clock tower.

In those pre-Columbine days, however, the confession apparently wasn’t enough of a red flag to trigger preventative action.

The UT Austin tower stands 307 feet tall and dates back to 1937. Paul Cret designed the structure
The UT  tower stands 307 feet tall. Paul Cret designed the structure, finished in 1937

I hope that Tower, directed by Keith Maitland and produced by Meredith Vieira reaches the wide audience it deserves.

The movie had me spellbound for 96 minutes, the same amount of time it took Charles Whitman to traumatize a nation unused to mass shootings. RR

Note: This post was updated on April 30, 2017, to reflect that Netflix streaming has picked up Tower.

12 thoughts on “Charles Whitman: Forgotten Rampage”

  1. Didn’t Whitman also have a brain tumor? I remember seeing a medical show once that indicated it could have played a role in his violent behavior, although the evidence was inconclusive. Apparently a perfect storm of an abusive home life, a medical condition and maybe even his military experience. Not to disrespect his service, but there was a study not too long ago that showed that even non-combat vets have a higher rate of suicide than the general population, although some theorize that people with abusive pasts may be more likely to seek refuge in the military. It’s so complicated — all that’s certain is that it was a terrible tragedy for everyone involved. I hope that the movie raises awareness of mental health issues.

  2. I remember this incident clearly and agree that had Whitman not been killed, a court trial might have cemented this horrific incident in more people’s minds. Also, it was so egregious that I think most people just wanted to wipe if from the collective memory banks and/or chalk it up to a rare aberration. It does, however, point out how important it is for warning signs of mental instability to be taken seriously. It should be a continuing lesson to us all.

  3. It really was a gripping movie. As regrettable as “active shooter” security drills are, this movie shows how helpful such knowledge might have been, as victims and witnesses relate how their naïveté put them in the line of fire.

  4. Really good walk off your beaten path. Would it be fair to say that the Whitman case was the first in a series of gun massacres?

  5. Well, my pa was a truck driver, much like myself, and he said it was a hair care tragedy. Men with platinum blond flat tops are dangerous, no matter what kinda’ load they’re hauling. Might be a hundred tons of cabbage in the trailer, but a dude with a blond flat top always keeps a big peacemaker in the glove box, and a hundred feet of rope. Also a library of lifestyle magazines that will curl your hair. Early intervention is the best hope. Next best hope is just throw a net over people with a blond flat top. If that don’t work, I’d go directly to organized fundamentalist religion.

  6. Wow! Speck, Whitman and Manson really did happen close together, didn’t they? I remember them at the time, and you got it exactly right, as I recall — Whitman got the cover of Time and then … nothing. Time to move on or something. Strange, especially considering (not to be too ghoulish about it) a casualty count of more than 40.

    All I can imagine in terms of the lack of continued interest is that Speck was “a drifter” and the Manson family were “homicidal hippies” — both of which the news outlets of the day knew how to report and present — but a clean-cut ex-Marine might have thrown them.

    But perhaps it’s more likely because he died at the scene, so there were no followup “manhunt” stories. A one-day story in the most literal sense.

    Anyway, thanks for the post! And I’m going to see the movie.

  7. Fascinating piece, Rebecca! I recall seeing the news about the horrific Whitman shootings as a teen. What is now clear, in my memory: The event felt like such an anomaly. Who would have thought at that time that the U.S. and world would contend with significantly more mass shootings and an American society that has so many gun owners?

    That is an unusual angle in the movie, and I’ll try to see it.

    It’s so unfortunate that Whitman’s own warning wasn’t given more attention and that more preventative action didn’t occur. Tragic.

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